A brief mention of the average salaries of players in the CFL in a recent issue of Maclean’s magazine reminded me of conversations I had years ago with former Winnipeg Blue Bomber, Keith Pearce. In the short blurb, it was stated that the average salary of a CFLer was $89,000, “but many earn the league minimum of $50,000.” Of those who earn below the average, many are Canadians on team rosters.
Furthermore, it was reported that the low salaries in relation to the star football players, primarily quarterbacks from the U.S., make it necessary for the “others” to take part-time jobs. For example, Jon Cornish — an all-star Canadian running back with the Calgary Stampeders — earns just $16 an hour, and works as a bank teller in the off-season.
Cory Sheets, an American running back for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who was named the 2013 Grey Cup MVP, earned $19.70 an hour, and worked part-time as a truck driver. Sheets was signed this year by the Oakland Raiders of the NFL, but was waived after sustaining a season-ending torn Achilles tendon injury. Sheets would have made $570,000 if he made the Raiders, a salary that is beyond the dreams of any CFL player. Still, according to MMQB, a Sports Illustrated-run football website, the average salary in the NFL is $1.9 million, which is mostly the result of obscene multi-billion-dollar TV rights contracts signed between the NFL and networks in a nation that has a population 10 times Canada’s. Even the lowest paid NFL players make $405,000 a year. In 2013, the NFL salary cap jumped from $120.6 million to $123 million, while the CFL salary cap was $4.4 million. Under such circumstances, a starting quarterback in the CFL makes between $250,000 and $450,000 (The now injured Travis Lulay, the B.C. Lions’s injured quarterback, is regarded as the CFL’s highest paid player).
During one of my conversations with Pearce, a player from 1950 to 1958 on some of the greatest Bomber teams, he mentioned that it was impossible for a Canadian CFLer to live on the salary they received. As is usually the case today, Canadian players received significantly smaller salaries then their American counterparts.
Pearce, who passed away a few years ago, told me that he had to have another job. In fact, it wasn’t solely an off-season job, but one he worked year-round between practices and games.
Star American players in the 1950s were well rewarded for playing in Canada, and actually made more than they would have playing in the U.S. for an NFL team. For years, Canadian teams successfully out-bid NFL teams for the best players in the U.S. The Edmonton Eskimos got Jackie Parker, though the Mississippi State standout was drafted by the New York Giants. The Bombers lured “Indian” Jack Jacobs from the NFL in 1950. Bud Grant, a University of Minnesota stand-out, played in the NBA and in the NFL before signing with Winnipeg in 1953, where he shone as a player and later the team’s head coach before taking over the Minnesota Vikings. Grant brought Kenny Ploen — an All-American with the University of Iowa Buckeyes, leading his team to victory in the 1957 Rose Bowl — to Canada to play quarterback for the Bombers from 1957 to 1967. Pleon led the Big Blue to four Grey Cup titles.
Quite a few college football Heisman Trophy winners also ended up coming to Canada rather than play for peanuts in the NFL.
Although relatively low-paid, Pearce was no slouch as a player. In fact, Free Press sportswriter Bob Moir called him among the team’s “outstanding Canadian talent.” In 1952, Bomber head coach George Grafton said Pearce could become “the greatest pass-catching end in Canadian football.”
In a game against the Roughriders, “Keith Pearce gobbled up a third-down pass from Jack Jacobs and twisted over the goal-line with less than two minutes remaining in the Western Interprovincial Football League (now the Western Division of the CFL) game Monday night to send over 8,000 Winnipeg fans at Osborne stadium (where the Great West Life building now stands) into a mild state of hysteria.
“The touchdown put Winnipeg Blue Bombers into a 19-19 tie with Saskatchewan Roughriders and a minute later the conference’s leading scorer, Joe Aquirra, kicked the convert to give Bombers a 20-19 decision,” wrote Moir (Free Press, October 17, 1950).
It should be noted that Osborne Stadium’s seating capacity at the time was just 5,500, but there were 8,000 crammed in the stands — the high for the season — for the game against Saskatchewan.
It was an important win, since it put the Bombers six points up in the standings over the Eskimos and eight points ahead of Saskatchewan with one league game remaining for each team.
“That Pearce boy, by the way, who grabbed the ball on his knees and then literally fell across the Saskatchewan goal-line has really come along in the last few games,” wrote Free Press sportswriter Maurice Smith. “It was a neat catch of a beautifully thrown ball (by Jacobs).”
Pearce, similar to many players of his day, played both on offence and defence. In one game while playing corner back, he intercepted three Eskimo passes.
The Bombers took the Western final in two games to three over Edmonton, but lost the Grey Cup. The Bombers lost to the Toronto Argonauts 13-0 in what was infamously dubbed the “Mud Bowl” at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
One Sportswriter wrote, “Because the field was like a pig’s wallow, what should have been a football classic turned into a slogging show.”
Pearce was a Winnipeg lad who played his high school football at Daniel McIntyre and junior football for the Winnipeg Rods before signing with the Bombers.
While with the Bombers, Pearce reached the Grey Cup final four times, but only claimed the title as a player in 1958, his last season in the CFL. The Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-cats, 35–28.
Pearce was on the team roster for the 1958 Grey Cup, but stand out in the last weeks of the regular season due to injury. He resigned with the Bombers in 1959, although he announced his retirement before the season began. He then said in August 1959 that he would be returning to the team, since its was short of defensive halfbacks “where Pearce was rated one of the league’s best” (Free Press, August 10, 1959).
But after only two workouts, Pearce decided he couldn’t play again. “My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and though I would have liked to play for Harry (Bud) Grant another season, there’s just no point if you’re not enjoying it.”
As he only received a relatively small salary during his nine seasons as a Bomber, Pearce personifies many CFL players even to this day. He told me on more than one occasion that he went on the field, not for the money, but because he simply loved playing football. It was merely a welcome plus that he received some money for his efforts, Pearce added.